Executive Producer, Founder | Little Wooden Boat Productions
Co-Founder, 51 Minds Entertainment
Anyone who's witnessed the evolution of modern reality-based television would find it impossible to miss the many eclectic shows delivered from Executive Producer Mark Cronin. An Ivy league graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, Cronin cut an ironic path to Producing television, ultimately founding the trailblazing reality TV powerhouse company Mindless Entertainment and co-founding 51 Minds Entertainment in a joint venture with producer Cris Abrego. Together they delivered hit series that included “The Surreal Life” and “Rock of Love” during what was an unprecedented exclusive deal for the then un-named series with VH1. Most recently with 51 Minds, Cronin has developed and Executive Produced Bravo’s hit series “Below Deck”. He explains that his approach to creating original programming isn’t so much “Mindless” as it is “gut-level entertainment” which he holds as his guiding principle. Trusting those instincts paid off in 2008 when Endemol USA acquired majority stake in Cronin’s 51 Minds for upward of $200 Million. iPitchtv caught up with Mark as he returns to his roots of producing with his own company Little Wooden Boat Productions now already finding traction with the breakout gamer “Idiotest” on GSN.
Scott Manville | iPitch.tv: Thanks for being with us, Mark. Tell us about your new venture, Little Wooden Boat Productions. What was the catalyst for starting the company, and please share with us some of the projects we can watch for.
Mark Cronin: The catalyst for starting a new company was my exit from my old company, 51 Minds. We sold to Endemol back in 2008 and my six-year management contract was up in 2014. I must say, it’s nice to be small again. I’m back to my Mindless Entertainment roots and the fun of producing for myself and not having to answer to the insatiable corporate profit beast. To me, a little wooden boat may be small, but it can still be full of fun and adventure.
iP: Will we find you at Natpe or RealScreen? Any specific agenda in those markets for Little Wooden Boat Productions?
MC: You may catch me at the conferences. It’s the most efficient way of making the rounds! My agenda is rarely specific there however. I like to just listen and maybe tease in that environment. When I want to sell, I like to be alone in a room with my customer and get them pregnant by forcing them to validate my parking.
iP: Well, that's not the only validation you're getting. "Idiotest" on GSN is having a strong run. You've produced a variety of successful formats within the unscripted world, from game, to talk, to variety/talent/dating, and once again finding traction in the game format world. Idiotest brings a fresh dose of comedy to the game genre, and obviously due in part to your Host, Ben Gleib. Are you pleased with how the show has developed from inception to current? Where are you with production?
MC: We actually just finished a third season of Idiotest bringing us up over 140 episodes. I am very happy with everything about the show. Inserting real comedy into a game show format is always a challenge. The two things fight each other. Comedy tends to make light of competition and suspense – two of the main things required for a successful game show. Most recently we have found that by building episodes around specific rivalries between the contestant teams, or by theming entire episodes, we can get in lots of comedy and still have a great and satisfying game. Of course, having a super talent like Ben Gleib anchoring the whole thing makes my job a lot easier.
iP: With all roads being challenging even for the best in the business, where do you find your inspiration for original concepts you believe can go the distance? What is it that makes you believe an audience will gravitate toward a new show you're developing?
MC: I use no other science than my own taste. If it’s a show I think I would like to watch, it’s probably a show I would like to make. I’m lucky in that I don’t have weird taste. I like stuff that lots of people like. But, for me to get excited enough to develop and then try and sell a show, I have to believe it has something new to offer. I can’t go out and say, “This should be on the air because there are several other shows just like it doing well.” I like to think that all of my most successful shows appeared when there were not others like them.
iP: We love the story of how you coined your original company's name, "Mindless Entertainment", after your own mother's protesting TV to be "that mindless entertainment". But we know your success in the medium is far from it. Not to mention that you're an Ivy League graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering! When you're making creative choices for a new project or format, what is your process in creating that chemistry which has delivered hits time and time again?
MC: That’s a big question! You can overthink the process. Mindless Entertainment is actually a guiding principle for me. Gut-level entertaining is my thing. I want to make you laugh and then surprise you with something real. I think making a hit for me is those three things: funny, surprising, and real. Getting funny is all gut. Being surprising is a constant battle against the formula. And capturing “real” is a major science. One thing I would like to add about producing a hit: Never let the network ruin their own show. A producer has to be a fierce advocate for what they know is right for the show and the audience. That is not to say you should not be collaborative, or respect the network’s knowledge of their specific audience. You have to pick your battles, but don’t be afraid to push back and defend your vision.
iP: With the global market becoming tighter knit, and new media platforms connecting all cross-sections, how does this influence your conceptualizing of new shows?
MC: There is no question that new formats have to be developed with an eye toward the app – or toward audience participation. Not that those are really driving the economics yet, but they are driving the green-light process, so you need to speak to those issues. For non-formatted shows, however, I don’t consider global or new media markets at all. I’m just looking for something new, entertaining and exciting.
iP: How important is core "Idea" in today's TV development world? Can originality still be attained?
MC: I have always believed and I still believe that Reality TV is an execution game. Every single show presents a completely different set of production challenges. Figuring out HOW to produce a show, cleverly, efficiently, on budget, and still with a compelling story well captured and then well edited is far more important than any core “idea.” For instance, the core idea of Below Deck is great – but without figuring out HOW to produce a reality-soap at sea, and sell charters to millionaires, and capture intense story, and pack it all into the episodes is far more important than the core “idea.” But of course, originality of both idea and execution are absolutely still possible.
iP: "Below Deck" really does have all the right components for success; unique venue, sexy cast, eccentric charter guests, and the unique "behind the scenes" fly-on-the-wall experience viewers get with the crew as they navigate the high seas and their own personal dramas. But you're in the middle of a real business, with a Captain who needs a crew capable of getting a job done at a level that bolsters his own brand for future clients. So I ask this question because there are so many shows with production wrapped around a business...How do you balance your needs for ideal casting, and the Captain’s needs for an ideal crew? Help us understand what a Showrunner like yourself deals with when casting involves "employment", which does impact a business. Is there a tug of war between Producer and Proprietor?
MC: Well, it’s either really fortunate - or really unfortunate - that the crew of a Super-Yacht has to be a very qualified group of people. There are maritime laws governing licensing. There are safety concerns. There is definitely a minimum level of training and experience necessary. So, on the unfortunate side, my casting pool is actually extremely small. On the fortunate side, my casting pool is amazing. It’s a business where being young, attractive and hyper-articulate are virtually job requirements.
The specific answer to your question is that it is a give and take. I must give the Captain a crew with which he can reasonably operate the boat to a required level of quality and he must give me the ability to cast people who are great on camera (and pass background and psych checks.) The judgement call comes in, as with all reality tv challenges, where you must decide, “Is this do-able? Is success possible?” If you have given no, or very little, hope for success, then the reasonable people give up and the show becomes a fake. If you make success a certainty, you probably have a dull show.
I will add that one of the big appeals of Below Deck is that the audience actually likes watching people who are good at their jobs. So, for that show, we try to err on the side of qualified, or at least dedicated to qualifying. The holy grail, of course, is a character with unquestionable qualification and amazing TV appeal - like Ben, our chef.
iP: For producers delivering proof-of-concept reels and pitches in marketplaces like iPitch.tv or Natpe, what technical or creative advice can you share with them? What is important for a buyer to see?
MC: Great characters who can’t help being themselves. That’s the key. Demo and casting tapes can come off very faked – they mostly are faked - I understand that – but the real characters will shine through. On the technical side I would say, “Don’t forget the audio!” People often don’t realize how important good audio is. They put all their effort into high-end video shooting and neglect a simple thing like lav mics, or a decent mix. I believe audio is actually 70% of the enjoyment of reality TV. It’s what they are saying that counts (and how easy it is to hear) not how they look saying it.
iP: How do you view the importance of Story in an unscripted show, and what is your approach to both capturing it, and crafting it?
MC: Well, there really is nothing else. Story is everything. My approach to capturing it is to fight against the unnatural situation of cameras and crews everywhere by making the rest of the experience as intense as possible for the cast. Isolation from the rest of the world, enforcing a fourth wall, as little let-up as possible on the schedule, understanding the characters and what is motivating them and then forcing that information out somehow, staying one step ahead of their natural desire to hide from the cameras… You need to get people to their truth. You can’t be lazy about it.
My approach to crafting story is to start with the actual true story. Cheated stories are always more choppy and less entertaining. For me, if the right work was done in the field, the edit should follow the true story.
iP: How do you feel about the evolution of reality television, and television programming as a whole over the past decade?
MC: It’s a cycle. In the 90s there were too many sitcoms and the talented comedy writers got spread out across too many shows and the quality went down in general, which left room for reality TV to come in and show the audience something new. Now I think there are more reality shows than the talented producer pool can support and the quality has gone down – which has left room for the serialized scripted dramas to take over and show the audience something new. How long before there are too many of those? We may be there now. I think the comedy space has contracted to a point now where the talent pool is concentrated again and the comedies are really resurgent right now. I think reality TV will need a contraction before the quality per show can go up again. Am I showing the engineer inside me here?
iP: If there is a demand for better quality, where do you see unscripted TV shifting in terms of subjects or content that viewers would gravitate toward? Where do you feel it's heading?
MC: The audience moved away from contrived premises (the producers cramming a bunch of people in a house) and toward organic premises (it’s a real family!) and then toward extreme settings. What’s next? I think it’s a quest for truth. Look at the way documentary movies are more popular than ever. Look at Vice news. I think the real is on the way back in reality. The trick will be to find the real that is still escapism. People are still looking for TV to transport them.
iP: Can you share with us any pivotal moments that made your career, or set your mind with a perspective that is still resonating in your success today?
MC: The first and foremost would be working for Howard Stern. He taught me to trust my gut and fight for the quality of your show against all comers. He also taught me how much story and comedy can be gotten from real people – whether they are famous or not.
Another pivotal moment would be my close partnership with VH1 about 10 years ago. We actually signed an exclusive deal with them – but they agreed to 10 un-named series up front. Many people thought it was a crazy deal to do – but it made our company. To this day it proves to me that thinking divergently – whether in concept, execution or even the structure of the deal is the true way to success.
iP: We're teleporting you back to 1980. You're in a three network universe. There’s no "Reality TV". Which TV Show would you love to have been creating and producing, and why?
MC: I always wanted to work for SNL. I still do. It’s the most amazing and long-lasting success story in comedy. I’m proud to say, though, that I worked for Howard Stern’s Channel 9 show in the early 90’s and we use to steadily beat SNL in the markets where we aired against them. So there.
iP: Thanks for entertaining us, Mark. Its great to see you getting back to your roots with Little Wooden Boat Productions. We wish you much success.
MC: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure even though you forced me to think.
iP: Apparently you are in fact far from "Mindless".
About Scott Manville: Scott is co-founder of iPitch.tv, connecting filmmakers and creators of original content with leading industry buyers. He founded TVWritersVault.com creating the first industry marketplace online to deliver shows from new creators to global broadcast on Lifetime TV, Discovery Channel, A&E, SyFy, and others. Manville has served as Producer for Relativity Media and is a former head of development for Merv Griffin Entertainment. He is a contributing writer for NATPE.com
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